By: Ben Allsop
At various stages of our life there are points where we need to make significant decisions about what happens when the Lord calls us home.
It’s not an easy thing to think about.
Here in Australia, research suggests that almost half of us don’t have a will. Yet I’m encouraged that in the discussions I’ve had with people of faith, we can talk about these things quite positively.
But there’s something that continually pops up in these discussions. How do we make really Kingdom focussed decisions about the resources God has given to us? It’s easy enough to get some legal advice and write a will, but how do we decide what to do with the resources God has entrusted to us? What theology should inform the kind of instructions that we give to our advisors when we come to make those decisions?
So, how much money should I leave to my kids?
This kind of question is always going to provide different answers for different people in different circumstances. Having met with many faithful people, there are a couple of recurring key principles that can help shape our decision.
I spoke with Bec, a long-time friend and experienced estate lawyer. I asked her how a Christian should go about making these decisions. From her perspective, there are some principles that she feels need to apply to the way we think about these things. The first one to think about is how Australian law defines ‘needs’ — particularly when wills are contested.
Looking After the Needs of our Family
Passing on an inheritance for the next generation is a consistent theme in the Old Testament and a way to provide for future generations. Paul advocates strongly that the provision for family members is part of a family’s duty (1 Tim 5:8). Warren Buffett is famously quoted as encouraging people to “leave enough money to your children to do something… but not enough to do nothing.”
I’m fortunate to live in a country that has a ‘safety net’ to care for vulnerable members of the community, but there are times when special care is required. I can think of several people I’ve spoken to that have made special provision in their estate for children who are living with a disability — reducing the burden on their children, but also helping siblings understand that their brother or sister is cared for. Research completed in 2015 suggests that where estates are allocated unequally between beneficiaries this type of consideration is commonplace.
From a lawyer’s perspective, Bec encouraged me to remember that when a will is contested, the law does recognise needs. With this in mind, how should a Christian view the needs of our loved ones?
How do we Define ‘Needs’?
In their book ‘God and Money’ Gregory Baumer and John Cortines spend considerable time exploring how as Christians we should think of our basic needs. Their suggestion is to ensure that educational needs are met, and perhaps some funding towards (not to fully fund) a home purchase or other need would seem appropriate.
But it’s not always that simple.
How do we manage funds when children are unwise with their finances or are experiencing personal problems? How do we respond to relationships with our children that have broken down, or where behaviour makes it difficult to provide funds to them in good faith?
Our will can be an act of mercy and grace.
As a lawyer, Bec described the most important part of her job as making sure a will isn’t set up to fail. By this she means, a will that is difficult to administer, or that creates confusion or disagreement amongst beneficiaries. Characteristics of a good will are that they are specific, but also built on decisions and values that beneficiaries (normally children) recognise through their own life experience.
Generally speaking, the broader community expectation in Australia is that an estate would be divided equally amongst children. There are circumstances however, where allocations might differ between children, or where previous gifts or future needs are also taken into account. In these instances, sometimes the best gift you can give to your estate is a well communicated, and well structured will. Communicating well with our children ahead of times can help make our will an act of peace and grace when we pass away.
What About Difficult Family Relationships?
How do we respond to relationships with our children that have broken down, or where behaviour makes it difficult to provide funds to them in good faith?
If we decide to allocate an equal share to children regardless of the state of the relationship, we have the potential to demonstrate God’s love and mercy. We provide a gracious resolution through our final gift and honour our children as being gifts from God — whatever the disagreements we’ve had. The will becomes an act of grace, and mercy. And yet, there may be circumstances where our children demonstrate poor money management or personal problems that an inheritance might exacerbate.
This is a really tricky point to negotiate. As with any gift, the temptation is to put conditions on a gift, or to leverage a gift towards certain behaviour. This can create huge problems in relationships. That said, if there is an appropriate executor in place, and a recognised need, your advisor may be able to help you think about how to structure a gift in ways that meet the needs of your loved ones.
Similarly, there might be disagreements left unresolved when we pass away, or broken relationships. In these instances, the option of being gracious remains entirely up to us. We may choose to include a measure of generosity to beneficiaries as an act of mercy and grace, despite the context.
Unequal Gifts Amongst Family Members
The parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11–32) reminds us that inheritance has the ability to bless our children, but also has the capacity to be used poorly. It also reminds us that there are times to consider the portion given to each child in the context of their own lives. It’s not unusual for parents to have loaned or gifted money to children in their lifetimes, but being clear about how this might change or affect their entitlement in a will is also an important discussion to have.
Investing Back into God’s Kingdom
Writing a will not only gives us the opportunity to include the people we care about, but also the causes and ministries that God has placed on our hearts. It’s not unusual for people to leave a small portion (say 1%, 2% or 5% of their estate) to charity, but I am convinced that as Christians we should evaluate that more deeply.
For example, it’s likely that over the course of our lifetime, our dependants will rely less and less on our support. As that occurs, it’s likely that our capacity to give to other ministries is likely to increase over our lifetime.
When God established the tithe amongst the Israelites, the figure was the share of land and harvest that was allocated to the Levites — the priests — who were not allocated land after the exodus. The tithe was their ‘share’ of income and provisions and it’s a practice that many Christians still adopt. Yet given that all of our earthly wealth is ultimately God’s, it would seem that when we no longer have need for it, the investment should be returned to His Kingdom work.
In this day and age, there are many Australians who will pass away with significantly more wealth than they expected. We should think very deeply about aiming to give as much of our estate as possible to God’s work. When Jesus tells the story of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13–21) we’re reminded that our Earthly treasure is not nearly as valuable as treasure in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Our wealth on Earth is a blessing from God, but also an opportunity to make our final act on this earth a generous one, and one that reinvests what God has entrusted to us into His Kingdom.